“In this restricted present, the only field in which my dreams can still unfold is the future, its form not yet being fixed,” he writes in his introduction to Aujourd’hui le monde est mort (Lost Human Genetic Archive), which opened last month at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris as part of its current L’État du Ciel cycle of exhibitions.
“Imagining the worst conceivable tomorrows gives me tremendous pleasure at the artistic level. The darkness of the future lights up my present and foreknowledge of a coming end guarantees my happiness in living today,” he continues.
Unlike his well-known photographs that capture a striking starkness in natural history dioramas, empty American movie palaces, and the sharp horizon where the ocean meets the sky, the exhibition is all clutter and chaos. Corrugated metal worn with rust makes up the walls where there isn’t exposed brick, treasures and trash from Sugimoto’s own collection are crowded in glass cases and meandering rooms, and if you enter the exhibition after sunset you are given a flashlight. No fixed electric lights are used, some of a skylight has even been crashed open by a supposed meteor. And everywhere, the world has just ended.“Today the world died. Or maybe yesterday.” That’s how each of the staged “scenarios” begins for moments representing the end of a character’s world, echoing Camus’ The Stranger, which begins: “Aujourd’hui, Maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas” (“Today, Mother is dead. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.”).
Curated by Akiko Miki, the exhibition embraces the perishing of our world instead of our mother, or maybe the same thing if you’re feeling existential in the being and nothingness of the space (wrong philosopher in that reference, but it’s all ideological free game in Sugimoto’s Palais de Tokyo world).
It’s a highly enjoyable experience, albeit frustrating if you’re the cohesive type, as there’s no way to grasp every detail of the large-scale installation in one go. My first walk through the exhibition I was exhausted by the exhibition texts (in both French and English) written “in a trembling handwriting,” and then later as the sun set my museum-issued flashlight only cast the weaving cursive in a yellow glow difficult to decipher. Yet the wandering in Sugimoto’s ruin reminded me of real abandoned spaces I’ve entered, where you find these little scraps of the people who have departed to decipher imperfectly what made them leave. Here the voice of a “comparative religion scholar” who perished in the wake of a meteorite is alongside a wine bottle below Sugimoto’s photographs of the “Last Supper” at Madame Tussauds, streaked by the Hurricane Sandy floods. A note from a “contemporary artist” is next to a row of empty Campbell soup cans “aged on the balcony of the artist’s studio,” representing a devastating Warhol market crash, and a 13th century statue of Raijin the thunder-god cavorts before Sugimoto’s 2009 lightning field photographs.Then there is the taxidermy parrot that wails out creepy music and a croak of “Aujourd’hui, le monde est mort” (“Today, the world has died”) and “Such a wonderful feeling I’m dying” when you approach, a mummified mannequin representing a beautiful sci-fi hermaphrodite race of the future, a casket lift holding a giant phallic object, and a Duchamp-inspired Japanese sex doll posed before a photograph of a forest, as if you’ve been brought through the keyhole of that unsettling installation and found in the end it is much less illicit but just as upsetting.
It’s a relief to finally escape the chorus of the damned and find yourself brought down a metal corridor to Sugimoto’s photographs of the sea. But he has one last trick to haunt before you step from the apocalypse, printed in a clear computer-made font on a small label on the wall:
“4.6 billion years have passed since the solar system began. The seven thousand years of human civilisation was but the blink of an eye. The third planet from the sun still has plenty of water, as if nothing had happened.”
Except in the waste of humanity, Sugimoto has imagined this wake of objects, a whimper of the absurdities of existence in the final bang.Hirisho Sugimoto: Aujourd’hui le monde est mort (Lost Human Genetic Archive) continues through September 7 at the Palais de Tokyo (13 Avenue du Président Wilson, 16th Arrondissement, Paris).
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